My ex-husband worked in the nonprofit sector for a while. And you know what? He rarely got health insurance. At one point, we were completely stressed out about not being insured, and he asked his boss what everyone else was doing, and she said, “Can't you get insurance from your spouse? That's what we do.”

That's appalling. Being a non-profit is no excuse for treating people poorly. And it's not just benefits—It's pay, too. Paying way below a living wage is elitist—as if working in a nonprofit is a rich kids' playground that your parents fund.

Luckily, the non-profit world is changing. The difference between not-for-profit and for profit is becoming more and more artificial.

When a business is deciding whether to be for-profit or not-for-profit, they are thinking about what is the most efficient way to meet their goals. For example, the Gates Foundation was established to get the money out of the hands of one family and give it to people who can change the world with the money. They do not want to make a profit, so they put all the money they make back into the Foundation.

Merck, on the other hand, is changing the world by curing diseases, but they need to create a profit in order to keep their stock price up and pass money on to shareholders.

Both companies are solving huge health problems. Both companies have equal capacity to get you, an employee, very close or relatively far from the act of saving a life. The only difference between the organizations is the financial structure.

So, here is a new way to think about careers in the non-profit sector:

1. It's small minded to think you can only do good in a non-profit.
It’s really dangerous to think there are vastly different motivators in the non-profit world. You’ll notice that in the for-profit world, in the new workplace, money is not a key motivator. You should not work where someone does not value you (and pay a living wage) and you should not work where you do not find meaning in your work.

I think we should all be careful of dividing the world into meaningful non-profits and soulless corporations. Caring for each other has more to do about the people who we report to and manage than the goals of the organization. If your boss comes to work every day genuinely looking to help you grow, and you do the same for the people you manage, then that’s a great workplace. If your boss is a jerk, and you are a jerk, then it’s a terrible place to be. It doesn’t really whether your company is making tons of money or saving lives in Tibet. What we do ourselves—individually, with the people next to us each day—is what establishes meaning in our lives.

2. Some non-profits are doing less than some for-profits.
Just because a company is a non-profit doesn't mean it's not a wasteland. Example: United Way. We already know that grassroots organizations are most efficient at channeling aid to people who need it. Yet United Way persists with their umbrella model of taking money from the community, through a monopoly-type system with corporations, and then deciding themselves what smaller organizations will get money.

United Way actually does no good directly. They are middlemen, skimming off the top. And in the age of Internet, we can all decide where to give, and give directly. We don't need United Way., on the other hand, is raking in profits. And they give employees time off to serve the community directly. The employees choose what to do. There is no overhead because is eating the costs themselves. It is totally efficient. There is no fundraising, there is no sucking the enthusiasm out of locals by telling them they need a middleman to connect with grassroots movements.

3. Choose your job by how direct you want to be.
Choose your job by what your skill set is and what your financial needs are. How direct do you want to be? You can be very direct and have little impact, and you can be very indirect and have massive impact. You can work with people you hate and save the world, or you can work with people you love, and donate money at night, on the Internet.

Being in a job you love allows you to generate income, and good will, and to cultivate a sense of gratitude to the world. Which means you'll give back no matter what.

4. Consider that earning money is a direct path to doing good.
The Robin Hood Foundation is famous for inventing a more direct route to doing good. It's a room full of people who are bidding to build things like a new shelter for the homeless ($470,000, raised in a few hours) . And 100% of their money goes directly to that project. It's the hedge fund industry's way of giving back. And it's just like their day job: brash, fast, high-flying, full of peer pressure, and extremely fun. It's hard to say these guys are not doing good. They are making way more money than most foundations make in ten years. And they are putting it to work to do good immediately.

Or here's another model. Earn money and buy board seats at companies that don't respect the benefits of diversity, and then you can force diversity on them as a shareholder. That's pretty direct. And if you didn't have money on your side for this one, it would take you ten years of lobbying congress or flying on jets with CEOs. (Is there a difference?)

When you talk about your career, talk about doing good, for sure. But recognize that we are each capable of doing good from wherever we are. And each of us is capable of being fulfilled in a wide range of jobs. Grow your career with an open mind: you'll find more opportunities to make a difference in the world.

Hat tip: The Non-Profit Discussion on Brazen Careerist, (where I might have been annoying to everyone, but still, I learned a lot from the conversation.)

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  1. Tia
    Tia says:

    Does the idea that we can ‘do good anywhere’ apply when we work for companies such as tobacco? I have really struggled with this notion recently as I search for new employment. Sure, with a great salary I could give back so much. But is it really as simple as just doing good myself? I keep trying to tell myself it is because I’ve seen an open position at a tobacco firm that fits my skills and interests, but I haven’t applied. What if I have a wonderful boss and great co-workers? Is it enough?

    Thanks for the post– it’s really made me consider my options in a new light (especially living in Geneva, Switzerland where there are NPOs galore!)

  2. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I stumbled upon your blog by Googling “Time management” and I got hooked. I currently work in the non-profit sector and I’m looking for something new while still making a difference and having a positive impact upon my community. Thanks for highlighting the fact that there are other options.

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